Got to say that as much as our recent trip to the Gulf Islands was a raging success, we were wildlife-watching failures this year. Watching wildlife both above and below the water is one of the pure joys of cruising by small boat and the southern Gulf Islands of British Columbia offer some mighty fine watching of all kinds of wild things. This year, however, the absence of some animals was more striking than the presence of others.
Almost entirely missing from our trip was the ever present Bald Eagle. I was dead disappointed about this, if not downright perplexed. I have a soft spot for eagles, considering them a special totem and I believe their presence to be an auspicious sign (except, perhaps, for their prey) Symbolic of the archetype of Freedom (among other things) the far-sighted eagle portends good things when I spot one as a trip begins. Six Bald eagles circled above Galapagos, talking back and forth to each other, the day we first splashed her with her new engine. So if that doesn’t prove their worth, I don’t know what does.
The magical- thinking creature inside me was perplexed, and then alarmed, as days went by without even one small eagle sighting; not even a tiny flash of white feathered head. By the time we got to the islands, I was seriously concerned. I began looking with concerted effort, but every sentinel tree remained unoccupied, every craggy rocky outcropping was left unguarded. I wondered if the spirit of the eagle was, perhaps, leaving me. I tried to come to some acceptance, pretending to be all Zen about it, but really, I would feel the loss keenly. I’m kind of attached to their majesty and all.
Then I thought, ‘Get a grip, Melissa! This is more than just one totem going out and another still to emerge! Surely there is something in the world of… I don’t know.. maybe SCIENCE…that is happening here?’ And finally it hit me. This is September. We’ve always traveled in June, July, or August, so we’ve never been up in the islands this late. Isn’t there something about spawning salmon and rivers and eagles and migration and feeding that goes on this time of year? And yes, apparently there is. And I knew this but didn’t put it together at first. I’m slow, but I eventually get there, one synapse at a time.
The eagles migrate this time of year to an annual eagle convention of the ‘Order of the Running Salmon’, or probably something like that. I’ll bet they feast, they celebrate, maybe wear funny hats and do secret handshakes, all the stuff. Basically, it’s a huge eagle party. The Fraser River boasts that it’s the biggest gathering of eagles in the world. Seems like it’s a little early, but where else could they go?
So the eagles were not at home. It was a great relief to me to understand what was happening, but I really missed seeing them very much. Those bare trees just look undressed without an eagle to sit in them. And who knows what shenanigans happen on unguarded rocky outcroppings! In the end, I spotted exactly two eagles, both on the west coast of San Juan Island on our very last day before heading home. They were close together, in fact, two flickers of white among all the green of the trees. Perhaps these eagles didn’t get the memo. Or perhaps they were being shunned; all dressed up with no where to go.
More serious in its absence was the purple and orange sea star. There were exactly 3. In all. Three starfish in all, each of them in the tidal zone of Kuper Island. Five years ago there would have been hundreds of starfish at any anchorage. Our starfish are dying. Some scientists think we may lose them altogether. I hope they can come back from this wasting disease because their loss is tragic. This, from my trip diary:
We both turned in early last night, just after sunset and moonrise. Full moon. This morning I had a nice paddle out to the light on the east side of Portland Island, then around Chad Island where I looked for more seastars and was disappointed to find none. I did see some small ones, the pale pink kind that have short and stubby arms, and also a large tunicate, but none of the ubiquitous big orange and purple stars that have always delighted me and brightened up the tidal zones. These give such childlike pleasure in their perfect formation and gaudy colors. They look straight from the Crayola Big Box. They are sorely missed and remind me that the beauty of the natural world cannot be isolated from its animals.
No sea stars, no eagles. It was mightily discouraging and we had also seen no whales. We decided to rectify that situation. You want to see the Orcas? Go to Haro Strait in the late afternoon/early evening and look for the whale boats. They have some kind of secret way of knowing where the Orcas are feeding. There’s no guarantee, of course, but we’ve had good luck spotting them by making sure we’re in that area in the early evening. We sailed into the north part of the strait around 4:00 in the afternoon and started scanning with the binoculars. Bingo. Right off the coast of D’Arcy Island, a Prince of Whales boat just sitting in place. That means they are watching whales.
Hiram roared to life and we jigged on over in that direction mighty quick. Staying well clear we still got a magnificent view. A large male, two females, and a baby! We were able to watch them from a distance as we went back north to Stuart Island for the night. They stopped to rest at the surface, maybe tending to the young calf, by Sidney Island, then continued north. All’s right with our world when we see the whales, but keep a good thought for our sea stars.